The story I had researched for today’s episode actually ended up being a little shorter than I would have liked, so I decided that I would do two stories FOR THE PRICE OF ONE. The first story is a solved mystery, which is something we’ve definitely covered before. However, most solved mysteries still end with dead victims and don’t really have a happy ending. So today I want to start today’s episode with a story where a mystery was solved happily—for the most part, at least.
This is a story that I vividly remember as it happened, since it took place in Missouri around the time when I watched the news a lot. I’m not sure if you remember hearing about this story, Willy, but I hope not, so that way I can tell it to you for the first time.
Our story begins on the afternoon of Sunday October 6, 2002, in Richwoods, Missouri, which is a small unincorporated community in the eastern part of the state. Eleven-year-old Shawn Hornbeck was riding his lime green mountain bike over to a friend’s house, a route he had taken several times. However, this time, Shawn never made it there.
Immediately upon being reported missing, police, firefighters, emergency personnel, and local volunteers began to scour the area in search of the missing boy, but no evidence of him could be found. Shawn had simply vanished.
The boy’s disappearance quickly became national news, as Pam and Craig Akers appeared on The Montel Williams Show and America’s Most Wanted. Shawn’s parents even founded the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation to advocate for missing children like Shawn. Pam and Craig devoted so much of their time, energy, and money to try to find their son, but their efforts were turning up nothing. As time went on, most people began to believe that Shawn was dead.
More than four years later, on January 8, 2007, thirteen-year-old William Benjamin Ownby—better known as Ben—was getting off of his school bus on Wild Rose Lane in Beaufort, MO when he was kidnapped, just 300 feet from his home. However, a fifteen-year-old truck enthusiast named Mitchell Hults saw Ben in the passenger seat of a white 1991 Nissan pickup truck as the truck raced out of the area. He reported what he saw to the police.
On January 11, fifty miles away in Kirkwood, Missouri, two Kirkwood police officers showed up at an apartment building to serve an undisclosed arrest warrant to 41-year-old Michael Devlin, a manager at the local Imo’s Pizza. Now, Willy, I don’t know if you want to Google a picture of Michael Devlin, but he’s not what you would call classically handsome, but there are seven billion people on this planet, so I think technically that means there’s at least one or two people who find him overwhelmingly alluring.
Anyway, upon arriving at Devlin’s apartment building , the officers noticed a white pickup truck that perfectly matched the one listed in the bulletin from Beaufort. The officers asked Michael Devlin, the owner of the truck, if they could search the inside of the house. Devlin told them no.
For the rest of that day, police officers kept an eye on Devlin’s apartment. And then, the next day, they approached Devlin at his work at Imo’s Pizza. They didn’t initially expect to get anything out of the conversation, as this was only one of several leads. However, when the investigators—which included FBI personnel—confronted Devlin, he eventually confessed that he had kidnapped Ben Ownby, and, much to the investigators’ surprise, he told them that he also had Shawn Hornbeck.
After this admission, Devlin was arrested and driven back to his apartment, where he unlocked the door for police. When police entered the apartment, they found the boys playing video games together. Ben Ownby quickly bounded to his feet and ran to the FBI agent who went in first. Shawn—now fifteen years old—appeared to be in shock and didn’t move. It was as if he couldn’t believe that his captivity had come to an end.
The boys were recovered and returned to their parents. The news made national headlines right away and came to be known as the Miracle in Missouri. Cameras filmed the families’ reunions, particularly Shawn’s reunion with his parents after four years, three months, and six days. Everyone was smiling because this was a rare happy ending to not just one, but two cases of abducted children.
However, if you’ll remember, I introduced this story as a happy ending—for the most part. That’s because, as happy as the reunions were, the boys both experienced the trauma of abduction and captivity, Ben for four days and Shawn for four years.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this case is what life was like for Shawn during his four years with Michael Devlin. So let’s go back to the beginning and talk just a little bit about what happened to him.
Back in 2002, when Shawn was riding his bike on that quiet, rural road, Michael Devlin was out trolling for a young victim. Devlin saw Shawn and knocked Shawn off his bike with his pickup. Devlin then got out of the truck, pretending to be concerned for the boy, and then scooped Shawn up, threw him in the truck, and drove 50 miles away to his apartment in Kirkwood. Devlin told Shawn that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Shawn was kept tied up for the first month of his captivity, and was repeatedly assaulted by Devlin. At one point, Devlin even attempted to strangle Shawn, until Shawn talked him out of it, saying he promised not to flee or tell anyone so long as Devlin didn’t kill him. While this agreement kept Shawn alive, it also gave Devlin ultimate control over him.
For the next four years, Devlin and Shawn posed as either father and son, godfather and godson, or just family friends. Because Devlin had Shawn convinced that any attempt to flee or tell anyone who he was would get him or his family killed, Shawn was actually allowed a remarkable amount of freedom. While Shawn was never enrolled in school, he had a girlfriend, went to sleepovers at friends’ homes, frequented the local shopping mall, and even owned a cell phone. Shawn never told anyone who he was, and no one ever figured it out.
At one point, Shawn did try to reach out. He logged onto the Shawn Hornbeck foundation website and left a comment on the page, asking how long they planned to look for Shawn. He signed the comment as Shawn Devlin.
But make no mistake, just because Shawn was allowed to do some things a normal boy his age would do doesn’t mean his life with Michael Devlin was great. In fact, without going into detail, suffice it to say that the sexual abuse enacted by Devlin made Shawn’s life a living hell.
At the beginning of 2007, Devlin decided that Shawn was getting too old, and he needed a new, younger victim. That’s when he took Ben. And while Ben was only with Devlin for four days, he was subjected to similar abuse that Shawn was.
After his arrest, Devlin told investigators that he knew that what he’d done was wrong and worried about how he was going to explain things to his parents. Devlin pleaded guilty to charges of child kidnapping, armed criminal action, attempted murder, forcible sodomy, production of child pornography. His total sentence is incarceration for the next 2000 years or so, so he won’t be able to victimize any more children. However, investigators figured that Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby weren’t the only boys he’d abducted over the years, so they organized a task force to investigate possible connections between Devlin and other missing children.
Near as I can tell, both Ben Ownby and Shawn Hornbeck are doing pretty well now. Shawn is 25 and working a regular job in Missouri. Ben is 23, and became an Eagle Scout after his abduction. So there you have it. A rare happy ending to a child abduction story.
My second story is similar to my first one in that it’s about a missing boy. Only this story has no happy ending because it is still very much unsolved.
Steven Kraft, Jr. was born January 11, 1989 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and if we’re learning anything from this show, it’s that you should never be from Wisconsin, particularly if you’re a boy. This is our twenty-seventh mystery, and it’s our third about a boy from Wisconsin, so I think that means that mathematically, one out of nine mysteries worldwide involve a boy from Wisconsin, which is pretty scary since I spent significant amounts of my boyhood in Wisconsin, but I guess you could say I’m a walking miracle.
Anyway, Steven—or Stevie, as he was called—was described as being rambunctious, outgoing, and adventurous. He reportedly had few friends, but was a good student who was rarely disciplined at school.
On February 15, 2001, twelve-year-old Stevie asked permission to go outside and walk his dogs. His mother said this would be fine, but that he needed to stay in the area. The family lived on Holly Street in the Benton Heights neighborhood east of Benton Harbor, Michigan. Holly Street was a dead-end street that had very little traffic, and so Stevie spent a lot of time playing along the street and the nearby woods. He was seen between 7 and 8 pm, playing with his dogs on the 2100 block of Holly Street, half a block away from his house. This was the last time Stevie has ever been seen.
Stevie’s mother reported his disappearance after she finished making dinner and he had still not returned him. He was reported as being 5 feet 1 inch tall, 95 pound, white, light brown hair, green eyes, and a red birthmark on the left side of his chest. At the time of his disappearance, Stevie was wearing a white/tan/brown striped shirt, tan parachute pants, a purple and aqua Charlotte Hornets jacket, and black Lugz boots.
Notably, Stevie was not wearing a hat or gloves when he went missing, and temperatures were below freezing the night he disappeared and stayed similarly cold for the next several days. If Stevie had somehow gotten lost without shelter, it’s likely he would not have survived long in the elements.
Frantic searches began for Stevie shortly after he went missing, particularly in the woods near where he was last seen. These woods run along Blue Creek, which had been frozen over at the time of Stevie’s disappearance. Footprints belonging to Stevie were eventually found in the snow, and they went through the aforementioned woods, past a frozen pond near his house, and ended at Harbor Haven Ministries, one block south of Holly Drive where he was last seen.
Three days after Stevie went missing, one of his dogs returned home. The dog led Stevie’s parents to that frozen over pond, but nothing was found there that gave them a clue regarding Stevie’s whereabouts. The following day, the other dog was found. The six-month-old puppy was found a mile and a half or so north of Stevie’s house near Blue Creek along Red Arrow Highway.
In May of 2001, once things had thawed out, dive teams searched the pond the dog had led Stevie’s parents to, as well as four miles of Blue Creek nearby, but nothing was found. In November of 2002, a wooded area near the Southwestern Michigan Regional Airport was searched, but no evidence was turned up. In February of 2004, there was a reported sighting of Stevie at the Midway Airport in Chicago, but apparently this wasn’t actually him.
Stevie’s case was featured on America’s Most Wanted in the hopes that someone who knew something about what happened to the boy would speak up, but as of yet, no one has done so. There’s so little evidence in this case that the police really don’t have any solid leads to go on. The FBI is now involved in the case, but that has done very little good.
We’ve been doing this show for six months now, and it still baffles me that people can just disappear so suddenly and so completely. Stevie was just out walking his dogs one evening and then vanished, with only some footprints left as evidence. As far as we know, no one saw or heard anything. He was just gone.
Now there are a couple of theories about what happened to Stevie. The first is that Stevie ran away from home and either managed to start a new life, succumbed to the elements, or was killed some other way. If you’ll remember, we said that Stevie was a good kid who never got in trouble at school. Well, that isn’t completely true. Just before Stevie went missing, he was suspended from school for fighting. According to the source I read, another student attacked Stevie, Stevie defended himself, and both boys were suspended. Whether or not that’s fair, that’s pretty standard for physical altercations in schools, at least in the US. This was the first time that Stevie had faced any serious discipline at school, so the theory is that this could have caused Stevie to want to run away, either because he had been disciplined at home in a way that he felt was unfair, or because he felt like he had disappointed his parents.
I’m not sure what to make of this theory because I’m a grown man and I don’t think like a child anymore. I work with kids who get suspended from school all the time and it’s really not a big deal. I mean, sure, it might get them grounded or something, but it’s nothing worth running away over. But to be fair, for a well-behaved child like Stevie, perhaps getting suspended from school felt so terrible to him that he felt the need to run away. However the circumstances of his disappearance don’t sound like he was running away. For one thing, it sounds like he disappeared several days after the incident, but an irrational act like running away from home seems more like something that would happen in the moment. For another thing, he didn’t bring anything with him to actually survive in the Michigan winter, and I think that shows that he didn’t have any intention of not coming home.
I find the other theory to be very fascinating, morbidly fascinating perhaps, but still fascinating. Now, Willy, you zigged and I zagged. See, I didn’t tell you the story of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby just we could have a happy ending on the podcast. I told you the story of Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby because it is the foundation for the theory that, in fact, Michael Devlin kidnapped and murdered little Stevie Kraft.
Now we’ve talked in previous episodes about how we don’t like the fanciful theories. Like you said, if you hear hoofbeats, think horses not zebras. However, this theory actually does have a pretty good basis. Devlin’s family owned a vacation cottage on Lake Michigan in Pentwater, Michigan, which is two hours north of Benton Harbor. Now, while the family usually gathered up there together in the summer months, Devlin frequently went up there by himself in February. From his home in Missouri, Devlin would have taken I-94, which passes right through Benton Heights, the very neighborhood the Stevie Kraft lived in. Figuring that a violent pedophile like Devlin didn’t only prey on two boys, police have seriously considered Devlin a suspect in the disappearance of Stevie Kraft, but he has never been charged with anything.
There is an issue with the Devlin theory. If Stevie was kidnapped, it is highly likely that he was murdered, as he has never re-surfaced. However, Michael Devlin has never been linked to any murdered children. The only thing he’s done—and it feels really awful to say “the only thing he’s done”—is kidnapped and severely abuse children. While this doesn’t mean he couldn’t have murdered Stevie Kraft, we don’t know him to be a child murderer, therefore I think it sheds a little bit of doubt on the Devlin theory.
I checked to see if there was anything dubious about Harbor Haven Ministries, which is the building where Stevie’s footprints ended, like maybe it was a front for slave trade. But, unfortunately, it seems like the ministry is actually doing good work helping the poor, dammit.
So that’s the story of Stevie Kraft. What are your thoughts, Willy?